Divided before a Changing Climate

by khristian méndez //

Bright eyed and still a little weary from a charged first day, the First National Congress on Climate Change carried on today in Guatemala City. As I wrote yesterday, there’s quite a spectrum of political actors and stakeholders regarding climate change. Today, the voices began to show stronger colors, some in stark contrast of each other, characterizing the different sectors of our Guatemalan society as the day ticked away and adaptation is becoming critical.

The day began with a plenary session on Climate Change and Rural Development featuring a representative from the Private Sector,* a representative from the Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources, as well as an FAO Emergencies Officer. For an audience that was energetically addressed by quite a few indigenous and farmer leaders the afternoon before, it was painfully obvious who were missing in this panel. The first panelist, standing high on his pale gray suit and tie, spoke shortly –hurried by an iron-rodded moderator– about the needs in rural areas: infrastructure, health, education, economic growth. It was until the participants asked him to elaborate on what can the private sector do (and what it is doing) to help in these areas. His response: they are ‘helping produce tax revenue for the government to do its job.’ It almost felt silly to have woken up at 6am in the morning not to miss this guy two and a half hours later. I missed this guys’ full name, but I will add it here tomorrow (once the information from the Congress is up.) The government representative had little new to add: the government is making new plans, and is looking for places to get funding from to implement the new development plans (more on this below). The FAO rep spoke about how climate change threatens agriculture: droughts, floods and highly irregular climate patterns. He had a very striking statistic: in order for the average Guatemalan agricultural worker to pay for a month’s worth of food and services (Q5,411 – or a little under USD700) she would have to earn 3.3 times as much (Q1,620 – or USD207 dollars.) And let us not forget: climate change stands to threaten the stability of this tiny income.

*Guatemala’s economy has a solid agricultural foundation, with sugar, coffee, bananas, corn and cotton being its major exports.

After a deep sigh, I sat through the next session on Adaptation for the Agricultural Sector as two-thirds of the plenary hall disbanded for the parallel sessions. I will have to apologize to the readers, since the speakers began to blend in with each other in the flurry of information presented, and most of their presentations were a little faded in color. The main highlights of this session:

– ‘Land Use Change and Forestry’ (which most speakers have explained really means deforestation in the national context) is one of the highest -if not the highest- emitter of Greenhouse Gases (GHG) in Guatemala.

– Indigenous seeds and indigenous traditional knowledge is resilient and able to adapt to climate change much better than conventional agriculture

– All agricultural businesses who sell abroad have to find ways to mitigate and adapt to climate change if they wish to remain competitive.


It was now 10am, and my stomach pleaded food, so I followed everybody else for coffee break, and decided to shake things up and go to a plenary session I thought I was (for the most part) less familiar with: Adaptation in Industry, Transport, Waste Management and Agri-Business. 

It was probably the paper presented on Guatemala City’s Bus Rapid Transport System (BRTS) called Transmetro, which began to paint the picture with more detail. Architect Alessandra Losseau, who works at the local Municipality, presented this on project. The long and short of it: the new BRTS system introduced 7 years ago –and which is still growing– reduced GHG emissions by 500% from the traditional red buses used in the city. This was further colored by the sheer inequality of road space in the city: only 32% of all commuters in Guatemala city stay away from public transport, yet they take up 76% of all road space. The local government is trying to implement more sustainable forms of transport along with the BRTS, such as bikeways and public bicycles, which reportedly have growing success (against a backdrop of violence in Guatemala city). For those of us who once thought Climate Change was mostly a matter of science, this is a living example it’s not. The BRTS also generated carbon credits for Guatemala, but this isn’t super helpful, as carbon markets are not very lively these days.

A scientist who works for Agribusiness and an engineer who works with Industry presented on CO2 emission reductions through sugar, cement and cement bags lifecycles, which have put big Guatemalan corporations ahead in the international markets. They are taking measures such as creating roads between the sugar plants to speed up delivery and reduce transport emissions, the use of new fertilizers,  use of organic and solid non-organic waste for incineration.  I asked a question on the social impacts of these industries’ new measures since these two scientists numbers seem to vow for the economic and environmental impacts, but it was not among the chosen ones for a response at the end of the session.

Finally, another Architect who spoke on Waste, presented on our colossal dumpster as it produces a heavy dose of methane emissions. (Methane, though not as abundant in the atmosphere as Carbon Dioxide, is a contributor that is 21-24 stronger than CO2 in its greenhouse factor.) She elaborated on the importance of a properly managed landfill, which would capture 100% of the methane emissions. Guatemalans’ annual waste stands at 1kg per person per day.

The lady who spoke about Waste, indirectly contradicted what the earlier engineer had said about burning solid waste to generate energy. This –she explained– released toxic substances into the atmosphere that are potentially more polluting than the solid waste itself. Moreover, the presentation on the sugar industry, and his claim that they only grow sugar on 2.5% of all land in Guatemala (a country where land tenure is not an easy dinner table conversation topic, to say the least) was welcomed with raised eyebrows by several civil society and indigenous folks among the audience. Somethings always seems to smell fishy to someone in the audience: be they in a suit, a t-shirt, or a güipil.

The following session on Climate Change and Disasters contrasted the previous’ day presentations like orange and blue: two scientists advocated for the all-encompassing importance of the scientific concepts of Climate Variability and (fairly expensive) Early Warning Systems, whilst the other scientist recognized –a British researcher who stumbled in Spanish– not only the ‘traditional knowledge’ that communities have and how it may just outshine what we call science under the pressure of a changing climate. They were followed by the CARE International lady, who had the only example of Community Based Adaptation: a measure that seems even more sensible to me after hearing scientists, politicians and indigenous peoples talk about the myriad ecosystems and microclimates we are lucky to have within these borders.

Towards the end of the day, we were all brought back to the plenary hall (there had been simultaneous sessions all day) to hear about the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources’ plan for low-carbon development. It’s called K’atun 2032 and it is the product of two years of work that began in 2012. It is a product of hundreds of national consultations, as well as cross-sectoral analyses, and prioritization. It contains 16 main areas of work and hundreds of indicators, goals, and guidelines to conduct this work. Hearing the government representative speak about this plan and how things are ‘mainstreamed’ (addressed across more than one element of the agenda) almost made me giggle at the huge resemblance this bears to the Sustainable Development Goals’ process I was in a month ago.

Thereon two more government officials spoke about low-carbon development (with mostly business as usual ideas). However, afterwards we heard a lady representing a Public-Private Partnership called PRONACOM (National Program for Competitivity, in Spanish). Her language was easy to follow, and she clearly had gotten out of her office and desk much more than plenty of the other speakers in this congress so far. She asked the audience: ‘what are we going to say to a campesino that has a tiny piece of land, no formal education, and no money if they lose their crops due to climate change? who is going to speak to him, in the first place?’ PRONACOM has a plan to keep Guatemalans competitive in the global market, but this plan is not employing an imposing mode of development. They want to use what farmers already know: ‘that farmer already has ancestral knowledge, and we must build on to that, give him tools, but also learn from him’.

As the time came for me to leave the building to catch my only ride back home, the last presentation unfolded: the potential for renewable energy in Guatemala. Until now, climate change had only been referred to as a negative thing –with good reason– but a young Masters student had a different take. First, he asked us all to consider that we are part of nature, and that what’s driving this planet into madness and destruction are our minds that are not healthy. He asked the people in the room (less than half, at this stage of the day) to stand up and renew our commitment to the planet if they felt like they wanted to. As I walked out the door, he had a stunning statistic to share: Germany reportedly is capturing more solar energy than it can use, and they receive 3 kilowatts per square meter per day. In Guatemala, we receive about twice that amount.


Integrating diverse sources of knowledge is hard, but doing it so in a country that still has deep civil war bruises, and staggering inequality, is even harder. And the burning son of this rainy season’s dog days might be making it harder to really listen what others have to say. The dog days are staying much longer than most of us in the country can bear, but they serve as a reminder that climate change is not coming, it’s here. The truth still stands: in contrasting colors or harmonious hues, Guatemalans will still have to adapt.

report from day 1 report from day 3

#adaptation #carbonmarkets #markets

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